The Russian military intervention in Syria, and the creation of a new regional alliance which includes Iran and Iraq, removes one undesirable outcome from the complex equation. The collapse of the government in Damascus, and its replacement by some form of jihadist-dominated Sharia regime which would spell the end of the non-Sunni minorities (including Christians), is no longer on the cards.
It does not herald the advent of a new era of moderation and realism among the key players, however, which would lead to a political settlement in the near future. Even if Moscow and Washington could agree on the broad outline of a new political framework—from which the old upfront demand for Bashar al-Assad’s immediate ouster would be removed—it is doubtful that they could impose on their regional allies a blueprint which is at odds with their strategic ambitions. Those ambitions remain fundamentally incompatible.
In the “American” camp, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Oman would be loath to accept the end of their plan to turn Syria into a permanent Sunni Muslim wedge dividing what they see as a putative Shiite-dominated crescent extending from Iran across Iraq and Syria into northern Lebanon. For all of them the issue is eminently geopolitical, and it is not at all compatible with with the stated primary U.S. objective of defeating ISIS (the rhetoric of removing “Assad’s murderous regime” notwithstanding). They do not care who does the stopping.
In Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s case, it contains an added complication. His parallel objective is to contain the Kurdish combat groups in northern Syria and northwestern Iraq which are vigorously fighting ISIS but are allied to the PKK (the Kurdish People’s Party)—which the Turkish Islamist president sees as an existential threat to Turkey’s stability and territorial integrity, and which have suffered far more damage from his air attacks in recent weeks than the Islamic State itself.
As for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, it is most unlikely that they would cease helping their protégés—the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front and its many offshoots loosely known as the Army of Conquest—which are every bit as “violently extreme” as ISIS, and with which they may easily join forces in the fulness of time. The “moderates” do not exist.
In the “Russian” camp, Assad’s government is fighting for survival. It will have to go along with whatever plan is suggested from Moscow, for as long as it preserves the coherence of the regime in the areas it controls, and perhaps hopes to expand—Syria’s southwestern third at most. This may even include a de facto partition of the state along its confessional lines, with the fiction of its legal unity preserved for some years to come.
The problem is that Iran’s and Russia’s long-term strategic interests are not compatible. Having signed the nuclear deal and regained a modicum of international legitimacy, Tehran seeks to regain its position as a regional power. Iran sees itself as a strategic counterbalance to the Saudis and a protector of the Shiites (including Syria’s Allawites) not only in the disputed Fertile Crescent but also along the Gulf Coast.
Iran’s current alliance with Moscow is a marriage of convenience. There is no love lost between the Persians—an ancient and proud race which had fought several losing wars with the Russian Empire at the time of the Great Game in the 19th century—and the Russians, whose long-term strategy of containing resurgent Islam on their southern borders has an anti-Sunni slant at the moment, but who do not necessarily see an entrenched Shiite domain as conducive to their Caucasian underbelly’s long-term security.
Russia faces a special problem in Iraq. The Shiite-dominated government is unsurprisingly keen to get Moscow’s firepower involved, but in northern Iraq the follow-up of reliable boots on the ground is notably absent (unlike in Syria), considering the lamentable performance of the Iraqi Army in Mosul in June 2014 and thereafter. In view of America’s awful experience there since 2003, and her huge investment in blood and treasure—however misguided—this is an area of paramount importance for coordination and, if possible, strategic understanding between the two powers. It would be impermissible for the Shia tail to wag the global-geopolitical dog.
The burden of history and the long-term geopolitical objectives of all key stakeholders need to be considered in order for mature strategic decisions to be made. Syria offers a potentially fruitful playground for serious great-power diplomacy. It is essential not to allow the secondary, ideologically induced “interest” of full-spectrum global dominance (the histrionics of McCain, Fiorina et al)—unrelated to America’s grand-strategic interest—to muddy the waters, let alone take precedence in the calculus.
The mirage of pax Americana in Damascus is dead and gone. It died in Baghdad over a decade ago, never mind Tripoli and Benghazi in 2012. It is time for politics as the art of the possible.